FASHION: BLACK TO THE FUTURE

In the Fifties, stylish Harlem women, excluded by the white rag trade, designed and modelled their own clothes - and helped launch a distinguished photographic career.

The first black model to make it on to the cover of Vogue was Detroit-born Donyale Luna, photographed by David Bailey. That was 30 years ago, and the fashion trade's long resistance to black models has been forgotten. But Eve Arnold documented how the women of Harlem took fashion into their own hands in the Fifties in some of her earliest photographs, which can soon be seen in London.

Like so many others, she was introduced to photography by chance: "A beau gave me my first camera and taught me to use it - a $40 Rolleicord." The only class she ever took was a six-week course in New York in 1950, with Alexey Brodovitch, mentor of Richard Avedon and many others. In his "Design Laboratory", 60 ambitious photo-wannabes jostled and savagely criticised one another's work, making no exception for Eve's first amateur efforts: "It was infuriating and chilling, but sadly accurate." The saturnine Brodovitch needled: "Surprise me!"

Eve was stung into trying harder, even though her first class assignment was to photograph fashion - a subject in which she had no interest. Appalled at the prospect of the usual stilted studio shots, she sought an alternative approach to the project. Dora, her son's nursemaid, told Eve about the regular fashion shows that were happening in Harlem. The civil rights movement had not yet gathered full momentum, but in 1950 the black community was growing impatient with the slow progress towards integration. In Harlem, style-conscious black women who felt that the white rag trade did not cater for them had begun to design and make their own clothes. Shows were held almost daily, in bars, theatres, nightclubs and church halls. Eve telephoned Edward Brandford, who ran two black model agencies, the Sepia and the Black & Tan, and he invited her to visit a deconsecrated Abyssinian church to see his star performer, Charlotte Stribling, aka "Fabulous", stride the catwalk.

Eve moved backstage, where she hoped the models would be less aware of her camera. Again, the quality of the resulting photographs partly depended on an accident - her flash-gun failed to fire and she was forced to open up the lens and work with the available light. (This minimum obtrusion technique, using a hand-held camera, would become one of her hallmarks.) Brodovitch said they showed a fresh and original approach, and told Eve to forget classes: "Go back to Harlem and do a comprehensive study." For more than a year she spent most weekends in Harlem photographing models and dressmakers, both in their homes and backstage. Once the story was completed, however, she discovered that no American magazine would publish the pictures. Her husband, who had lived in Britain, sent them to Picture Post, which ran eight pages plus the cover.

With just the one story to show, Eve made the rounds of the New York magazines, to little effect. Eventually she persuaded the publicist at the Metropolitan Opera to let her photograph an opening night. Armed with two stories, she showed her work to Maria Eisner, who ran the newly opened New York office of the photographers' co-operative Magnum. Largely on the strength of her Harlem photographs, she was invited to become a stringer: she and Inge Morath were Magnum's first women members. Her career as a photo-journalist took off and she chronicled almost every aspect of Fifties America, from unsavoury politicians (Rockwell, McCarthy) to film-stars (Monroe, Dietrich). Since settling in London in 1962 she has continued to photograph on assignment throughout the world.

To tie in with her Barbican Art Gallery retrospective a BBC TV crew recently filmed Eve Arnold in Harlem, site of the photographs that launched her career. Sadly, Charlotte Stribling could not be found. But the Abyssinian church still stood on 155th Street, and there Iman Bowie discussed the problems of being a black model.

Back in 1950, black women were still straightening their hair or wearing wigs, and fortunes were made out of selling skin-lightening cosmetics. But the women of Harlem were starting to react against Seventh Avenue "prettiness" and establish their own styles. An episode largely absent from fashion and social history is movingly documented in Eve Arnold's photographs, here and overleaf.

An exhibition of Arnold's work will run at London's Barbican, 9 May to 14 August. Her new book, `'Eve Arnold: In Retrospect", is published on 6 May (Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 30)

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower